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Serbian Composer Connects the Unconnectable: Why he's being revered by the people (Photo/Video)

In an exclusive interview for Telegraf, composer Aleksandar Simić shares on a number topics - from how he wrote a Mass as a commission from the Vatican, to how it feels for a "tiny" Serb to work with the almighty NASA...

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Commissions for his music came from the Russian Federation and the Vatican, United Nations and Yad Vashem. He has collaborated with the Simon Wiesenthal Center and various UN agencies and initiatives, from UNICEF and Alliance of Civilizations to the Office of the Secretary General. Serbian media, however, have put him in the absolute spot-light only after the national news agency reported on his official visit to the National Space and Aeronautics Administration, or NASA, how most of us know it.

Thanks to the US State Department that broke the deal and financed the project, NASA has provided the materials for the set of 12 video installations to accompany Simić's capital creation "The Zodiac - 12 Character Pieces for Piano and Orchestra".

These NASA installations, created from the footage obtained by the Hubble ST, Voyager ISM and various other missions, are designed to visually enhance, follow and accentuate the live performances of the Zodiac Concerto, thus turning the concerts into real intergalactic multimedia journeys. The first showcase was organized by the American Embassy in Belgrade and launched by the veteran American astronaut, Ms. Marsha Ivins.

At our first encounter with Simić, in one of the many coffee shops of our nation's capital, the first idea that comes to mind and the first question to ask him is how does he view this new burst of "sudden" popularity and how much does the whole pomp in the media speak about him or if it maybe tells something of the media itself?

- The media determines what becomes popular and most of the times the whole thing has nothing to do with the Populus itself. When your job requires being in the public eye, I guess popularity should be welcomed. On the other hand, it is so ephemeral that it is also a bit vulgar per se, even when it is well earned - says Aleksandar, with unadulterated honesty, and switches back to the question about the media, in a single breath:

- And as for the media - I don't know what to tell you other than to remind you of the fact that they'r just a part of the overall values of the society. In that sense, they are often seriously lacking in courage integrity, basic ethics and the awareness of the power they posses, that should in my honest opinionbe much more often coupled with accountability. We are being killed by the negative selection as fundamental principle and it's probably best depicted in the overall tabloidization of the media and th fact that plenty of them have become no more than the message-boards for various interest groups an thugs who are presently holding office, no matter who they are or what they stand for.

You've just mentioned the "ruling thugs"...how, in your view, are the politicians relating to the people?

- I see it as a quite paradoxical relationship. On one side, they readily and wholeheartedly despise th common man, while on the other they constantly seek to sense the pulse of the masses, formulatin most of their decisions and actions on the basis of "what people would like" and what could bring their way a couple more votes and another term in office. When you have a society that's seriously gone astray, one of the most dangerous methods of leadership is to run a populist policy.

Foto: aleksandarsimic.com

Foto: aleksandarsimic.com

There is an increasing number of young people who are complaining that there is no one to vote for. What would be your message to them?

- To begin with, I can just say that I understand them very well and personally empathize. Ever since the beginning of the so called multi-partisanship system here in Serbia, we've constantly been put in  position to vote for what may appear as a "lesser evil" among the options at hand, since we practically neer had anyone that we could say deserves our unreserved trust or genuinely enthusiastic support. A a rule, we were always voting against one of the political options, rather than for the one that we reall believed in. Eventually, that fact that all political parties are equally corrupt and compromised, has lea us to point where even those who are deeply conscious of the significance of every ballot have becom abstinent. I'm not sure if I may have a smart advice to give. It is obvious that among the people and th political options that have paraded the Serbian political scene in the past few decades we cannot fin those that are capable of changing things for the better. There is just too much lying, smugness, an ridiculous spinning going around for any of us to believe any of the current players from both sides of the fence. It is evidently necessary for us to groom some new breed of untarnished people, and for that we need a whole new set of values - or as they say "In order to change things and solve the problems we are in, we need to change the way of thinking that brought us to where we are". In that sense, the game of politics has to become attractive for those that are ready to give rather than take, those who are ready to take risks and make sacrifice in order to do the right thing, for people with vision and integrity and not for your everyday yes-men whose spines are soft enough to endure things no decent man should ever put up with, waiting for their time to come - otherwise it's just a vicious circle of never-ending corruption, stupidity and incompetence.

What's your stand on the meaning of the term Democracy?

- At the beginning of the third millennium, 2500 years after Solon, that word has been abused so many times and in so many different ways that it has almost completely lost its meaning. We have seen sovereign states attacked, civil wars provoked and cultural genocides committed in the name of Democracy. It's enough to invoke that "mantra" and you can do whatever the hell you want. Yet, it is extremely dangerous to reach out for any other form of social governance and in that sense one can easily concur with Churchill when he says that "Democracy is the worst form of government...except for all the others". Also, if we use the etymology to extract the formula to solving all problems by letting the people rule, the whole thing doesn't hold water again, since the majority of the "people" anywhere cannot tell its head from its but, and therefore should not be trusted to rule or govern - and, as I said, that goes for any place, including the so called emancipated and developed societies with high percentage of those that are educated. If we are to look for a "closer to good" solution to the problem, Meritocracy may sound almost perfect, but who is to decide on who "deserves" to rule. I think that, at the end of the day, we still haven't been able to come up with anything better than democracy, just as long as we prevent ourselves from using it as an excuse to accomplish our imperialistic and globalization agendas and so far as we don't mix practicing democracy with populism while indulging the primitive parts of our societies, and also if occasionally we remember the legacy of wise Solon, as a unique Urtext that still stands far above all subsequent models and interpretations.

Foto: Marko Todorović

Foto: Marko Todorović

What system then is the ideal one? Do you think that the world should be ruled by Masons?

- I don't know where'd you get that from. I can only assume that this is a tiny provocation where I'm supposed to take a stand pro or contra Freemasonry. As you know well, it's only the quintessentially antihuman and totalitarian regimes, such as Hitler's or Stalin's that have explicitly denounced the Masonic ideas. The ideals of the French bourgeois revolution that brought forth the emancipation of the "ordinary" citizen are in fact Masonic - Freedom, Brotherhood and Equality for all men - not to mention the famous US Declaration of Independence. Enlightenment and Humanism are both par exellence Masonic ideas, as Freemasonry has developed through an endeavor to rid the society of the oppression and the destructive influence of court and clergy. Throughout history, there were some pretty amazing people among Freemasons, who represented the flagships of progressive forces in their respective societies, people like Garibaldi, FDR, Ataturk, Mozart, Mark Twain, all the way to some of our own, like Georg Weifert or Michael Pupin. But, that still cannot give anybody a right to say that the world should be run by Freemasons. If there's something that should rule our world, it's compassion, wisdom, creativity and consideration towards a fellow human being. The idea of a world run by Masons is yet another one of those where it is convenient to allocate responsibility to so someone other than yourself - we know these ideas very well and we call them conspiracy theories. The world is sadly run primarily by greed as a chief principal - an utter and completely unsustainable greed, that eventually endangers the survival of the entire human species, as it is evident from the level of devastation of depletable natural recourses, environmental pollution, or the ludicrous idea that it is ok to produce wars, simply because it is the most efficient way to make money, while completely ignoring the fact that the next global conflict, that we are so eager to provoke, may also represent the end of human civilization.

You've mentioned Michael Pupin...You gave a lecture on him with the veteran astronaut Marsha Ivins, as a preamble to one of your concerts. What would you say is the biggest injustice or an unknown piece of information about him?

- Maybe the fact that we are not aware of his immense contribution to Serbia as his motherland. Pupin was our first diplomatic representative in the United States, and unlike the diplomats of today, he wasn't sent there as a reward, but as we know well, went there himself and worked industriously until he became one of the most distinguished members of the American scientific community and a Pulitzer prize awardee for literature - and it was only then, when he had something to give, rather than take, that he took upon himself to represent the interests of Serbia in America. For instance, what most of the people around here do not know is that Vojvodina was attached to Serbia as a result of the Paris peace conference and primarily thanks to the friendship between Pupin and the American President Woodrow Wilson (with whom he, by the way, shared the same Masonic lodge). It's also far from common knowledge that Pupin was one of the 14 original founders of NACA - a precursor to modern-day NASA, founded in 1915.

How did you feel while working with NASA?

- Nice, I guess. I don't know if I can say exactly how I felt. Honestly, I got what I was hoping for and much, much more. When they first responded to a plea made by the US State Department, one of the protocols included the password and the permission to use a part of NASA's server. Naturally, as a kid I used to dream of such thing happening - the only difference being that back than I wouldn't have a single clue on what to do with it. In this case, everything was very clearly defined and planed to details. The objective was to create an homage to the eternal bond between the stars and the humanity - represented by the music of the "Zodiac" and the fantastic images that reached Earth over the years through such mindboggling missions as Voyager or Hubble. Through the entire process we managed to come out with a set of 12 character pieces for piano and symphony orchestra and a corresponding set of 12 video installations that visually follow, rhythmically underline and accentuate the music in live performances, turning the concert hall into an intergalactic ship with an open deck, thanks to the simultaneous projections of these video materials on different surfaces like the hind and side walls, huge plasma screens, the ceilings, and the adequate lighting design that merged the pictures into the architecture, leaving the audience breathless. Since the inception of this collaboration there were many different stages, from astronauts coming on board, through using this project to give a new note to the Serbian-American bilateral, and reminding people that the relationship between two countries is also embodied in the lives and contribution of people like Pupin or fantastic collaborations such as this one. The last stage of the entire project was initiated recently, during the official visit to NASA launch center in Cape Canaveral, where we had an incredibly warm welcome and began fantasizing on new possibilities opened by this mutual journey and the experiment of uniting science and art.

Foto: mihajlopupin.info

Foto: mihajlopupin.info

If one remembers that you wrote a mass as a commission from the Vatican, it is impossible not to reflect on your definition of patriotism...Is it any different from the general interpretation of this term in Serbia?

- Firstly, my viewpoint on patriotism or the distortion of this idea in certain periods of modern Serbian history has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I wrote a mass for the Vatican. I am not a proponent of the Vatican in Serbia - I also wrote a lot of music for various Eastern Churches and I am a Belgradee and someone who loves Serbia. Still, I will tell you what I have said many times over. I think that people are frequently confusing the notion of patriotism with that of chauvinistic nationalism. Habitually, those who have seriously damaged the image of Patria are being hailed as patriots - like it's been done with the war criminals from the nineties, when killing and pillaging were enunciated as supreme acts of patriotism. In order to be a true patriot, one also has to be critical of his homeland, just like a good parent is not the one who pampers his children even when they are bad - it is not enough to draw the nationalist symbols across your forehead, wear a t-shirt with a face of a Hague indictee, and scream out the the diehard slogans with the folk tune playing in the background. It takes more than that. It takes making the country a better place for the generations to come. Only then you may consider yourself a real patriot.

And finally, did you, while writing a mass, have an opportunity to exchange thoughts with pope Benedikt XIV on the disparities between the Orthodox and the Catholic Christian communities or on discontent with some of the Catholic doctrines.

- Of course I did. We've talked on many occasions, before and after he became a pope. "Missa Solemnior" - the mass that you are talking about, was created back in 2004, as Christianity was marking two important dates in its history - 950 years of the divide between the Eastern and the Western Church and the 40 years of reconciliation between Rome and Constantinople. This Great Schism, as it is also called, has pretty much set the scene for the East-West split in general, which in many ways is plaguing our world as we speak, and has taken a huge tall in lives over the centuries. My mass is dedicated to those victims. I decided to dedicate this mass to the victims of all human divisions and I saw this as a very unique opportunity to convey the message on the necessity of unity, tolerance and dialogue. That is why this mass is a first roman liturgy that features the movements such as "Quid Fecisti", that relates the opinion that killing any man is but a fratricide (just like with Cain and Abel, from where we took the text), or a Kaddish for Jesus, where Vatican was provoked to take a firm stand against the injustice and senselessness of anti-Semitism, which as we all know well was for centuries nurture in the lap and under the auspices of the Christian Church. As for my discontent over anybody's doctrine - I have never tried to hide my displeasure with any of the doctrines or practices that are in their essence against men and humanity. All human institutions, including the religious communities and churches still have a lot to work on and improve in that sense. Finally, just take a look at what Pope Francis is saying and trying to do and change, and imagine how many enemies he must have gained by now only in Rome, and how would the conservative audience react to a similar attempt to shift course by, let's say, Serbian Patriarch.

In your interviews, you often mention obliviousness and the phenomenon of "late wisdom"?

- Because I believe it is important to cultivate the culture of remembering. If we have a wrong idea about the past, there's a very good chance we shall repeat the same mistakes, over and over again. Belated wisdom, yet, is an even worse treat - as we so often see people who were at one point in a position to make a change and do something, but have remembered to, much later - this is most painfully obvious with people who come to their senses only after they fell out of grace. This is how we have recently heard the newly ousted Croatian president Ivo Josipović speaking of the "ustasha viper that sleeps in the Croatian bosom". How exactly was he prevented from taking a more stern anti-fascist position, while he was still in power. The same goes for Milošević's generals who were in position to save Serbia during the nineties, by organizing a coup, while they were in command of the army. Instead, they were joining the ranks of the opposition only after Sloba was giving them the sack. This is the kind of belated wisdom I was talking about. Do the right thing while you can actually do something. If you haven't already - than at least refrain from being smart later and from knowing exactly what's to be done, like Al Gore, who never tried to use his position as a Vice President of the United States to stop opening Alaska for oil drilling, which in turn will seriously exaggerate the problems created by climate change and speed up our demise. Still immediately after he "refrained" from using his office or at least his voice, he came out with the "Inconvenient Truth" for which he was awarded both the Academy Award and the Nobel Peace Prize. I'm sure you will agree that the world would be a much better off with Alaska preserved, than with two more trophies on his shelf.

You are a composer who is, either by faith or by pure coincidence, surrounded by the world's mighty, far more than many of the actual politicians. Do you see yourself in politics?

- I trust that often the best way to be politically dedicated and useful is to stay out of the official and especially partisan political structures. I think that anyone can make a certain contribution in measure with his or hers potential and abilities. In that sense, I have been in politics for quite a while, trying to do something in the field of the inter-religious dialogue, human rights or through the various charity and humanitarian initiatives. Politics was taken very seriously by people like Victor Hugo, who never had the ambition to be elected into parliament or any kind of government office, but did not falter for a second in his activism, being the first and strongest opponent of the death sentence, or the instigator and proponent of the first ever international peace conference. The only way things will start changing in the right direction is if politics starts attracting people who have no political ambitions, but primarily the urge to make their surroundings better and a world at large a better place. Till then, the actual decent people will view politics as something dirty and corrupt, as unfortunately it so often is. I believe that one of the greatest tragedies of our times lies in the fact that the best people this planet has to offer, the proverbial Salt of the Earth, is staying out of politics, therefore leaving it at the disposal of those who customarily have no love, compassion or mercy.

(Katarina Vuković)

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